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US Defence Secretary Esper in Israel as White House tells congress it plans to sell F-35s to the UAE

What happened: US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper met with Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday as both countries continue to discuss ways to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region.

  • Esper and Gantz held several consultations at Ben-Gurion Airport with Israel’s leading weapons manufactures, including Rafael and the Israel Ministry of Defence (IMOD)’s Directorate of the Defense Research and Development. Esper also held meetings with the director-general of the Defence Ministry, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel, IDF Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and other senior officers.
  • Gantz said that both sides discussed “the critical components of security cooperation” in relation to changes in the Middle East and the “imperative to maintain regional security and stability and to confront Iran”.
  • Speaking at a press conference, Netanyahu said: “We have received more than security — the American pledge to maintain Israel’s military qualitative edge. I think this is an important achievement for the State of Israel. We also know that we all face a common threat, and understand this well. It’s important that the security establishment has received a pledge from the US to maintain our edge in the region and in general.”
  • As Esper attended meetings in Israel, the Trump administration notified Congress it intends to sell 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE, the same number that Israel has ordered.

Context: Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu released a statement that said Israel would not oppose US plans to provide the F-35 to the UAE.

  • Netanyahu’s decision to support the US plan came after Gantz flew to the US and signed an agreement with Esper that ensured the US would maintain Israel’s QME in the Middle East “for years to come”. Esper and Gantz also signed several procurement plans, to be financed mainly by the US, to ensure that QME.
  • The US agreed to Israel’s requests, including an additional squadron of F-35s, as well as a squadron of the latest model of F-15s, helicopters, refuelling planes and precision-guided bombs. The US agreed to help Israel buy the V-22 helicopter-plane, which is designed for long-range special forces’ missions. The administration also pledged to grant Israel access to innovative technologies.
  • However, the procurement plans are currently being delayed in Israel due to a disagreement between the defence and finance ministries, which is preventing the ministerial committee to convene and approve the plan.
  • According to a report in Yediot Ahronot, Defence Ministry officials wish to carry out the acquisition as soon as possible and are prepared to pay the cost of the US loan’s interest — which stands at $250 million — from the ministry’s budget. The Finance Ministry is opposed, claiming that the previous round of loans is still yet to be paid off, and the issue has been brought before Attorney General Mandelblit.
  • The US State Department is still required to issue a formal notification to Congress over the F-35 sale to the UAE. Once it does so, the sale is expected to come under heavy scrutiny by Congress, which will have 30 days to conduct a review. Elliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has said that he will introduce legislation on Friday to prevent the sale from moving forward without strong assurances that it won’t harm Israel’s QME and that American adversaries will not be able to gain access to the military technology.
  • Congress can decide to pass legislation that modifies or prohibits the White House from selling F-35s to the UAE, until the point of delivery. However, the Trump administration would likely veto any legislation, which would require a two-third majority in Congress to overrule it.

Looking ahead: The Trump administration will push for Congress to approve the sale before a new administration enters the White House in January.

  • The UAE will be concerned that if the sale is not approved by then, it might be cancelled were Democrat Candidate Joe Biden to win next week’s presidential election.
  • In an interview with Jewish Insider, Biden’s top foreign policy advisor suggested that a Biden administration “would have to take a hard look at it to understand exactly what’s involved,” in the deal.

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